Tuesday, March 15, 2011

He's Not Heavy, He's My Cannon: Cannon Basics with Milton

So, when I offered to write a full post on cannons, I probably ought to have considered that that's a lot of post for one topic. So, new plan--more than one post on cannons. Cannons are just that fantastic.

This is a common three pounder. He is a reproduction of an eighteenth-century British artillery piece. He lives in a trailer in my backyard. His name is Milton.

Let's break Milton down into his component parts. The part that makes Milton a cannon is the tube--the black iron cylinder riding on the other part, the carriage. You can strap a tube to a log and it's still a cannon. A carriage without a tube is just, well...wheels and some boxes. Milton is a common three pounder--cannons are classified by the weight of shot that fits down their bore. So, Milton fires a three-pound solid shot. If he wasn't such a pacifist--because really, Milton doesn't fire much of anything besides powder. He's "common" because he's not "light." Some pieces were designed specifically for mobility on the field, and are known as "light three pounders" or "grasshoppers."

Not Milton. Milton is as heavy a three-pounder as they come.

As I said, we fire powder. It's just black powder, the kind that pretty much any muzzleloading weapon uses, but we do use a coarser grain than hunting rifles or muskets. We wrap about a cup of powder in an aluminum foil cartridge with a half-cup or so of cornmeal for back pressure. Yes, we use aluminum foil--it's safer than the fabric bags or loose powder used in the eighteenth century. Less chance of, you know, accidentally blowing something up when it's encased in metal instead of flimsy cloth.

Even though Milton only fires powder, the resulting report is very loud (you'll see a lot of ears being covered in these shots--plus we're all wearing modern earplugs--eighteenth-century artillerists were likely half-deaf) and sometimes you can capture the flash on film. Like here:

A few notes on safety. Even though we aren't firing live rounds, the concussion from the explosion actually can cause injury. So--rule number one of cannon safety--don't ever get in front of the cannon. Artillery crews yell at you for that. Also, there's a chance that a stray spark could ignite a cartridge and the gun could go off while we're unprepared. To clarify, that would mean potentially: a) firing an implement across the field; b) injury to the crew if they're too close to the barrel c) worst case, gun explosion. To avoid that, we clean the barrel very carefully between each firing. We also keep the powder box far away from the smoldering stuff required to fire the gun (more down the post on that). Also, as a final precaution in case the gun did fire while we have an implement (see the sponge-headed sticks in the pics above and below?) down the barrel, we never wrap our hands or arms around the implement. That way, we're less likely to lose an arm if the worst happened.
Yeah, and they're loud. So cover those ears!

There are roughly six crew positions on the cannon. Two are at the front of the gun, two are behind the wheels, one is one the box (ode to a powder monkey here), and you also generally need a gun commander. In a pinch, the gun commander may serve on the gun in one of the positions. The folks on the front of the gun clean the barrel between firings and load the piece--these positions are the Worm position (uses a device to pull out debris) and the Sponge/Ram position (sponges the gun and rams down each round). One of the fellows behind the wheel tends the vent--he keeps his thumb on the touchhole to maintain a vacuum, and primes the gun when it's time to fire. The other fellow has a simple enough job--he tends to either a burning bit of "slow match" (treated rope that burns slow and hot) or a portfire (much like a flare, for wet conditions) and then, when the command is given, fires the gun. I say "roughly six" because you may also use additional folks for ferrying rounds or minding the portfires sometimes used to fire the gun. In eighteenth-century artillery regiments, more men operated off the field ferrying loads of powder and water to the pieces on the field.

Cannons were used on the field, on shipboard, and in the defenses of forts. The only difference between a shipboard cannon and this field piece is the carriage. Naval guns were on naval carriages--stout, less mobile little things.

Versatile field pieces can be moved with some good old-fashioned teamwork and elbow grease--and larger pieces/longer trips could have relied on oxen or draft horses. British Major-General William Phillips famously noted, when presented with an "impossible" terrain to move artillery over, that "Where a goat can go, a man can go. And where a man can go, he can drag a gun." (Gun, as a generic term, is often used to describe artillery pieces.)

More to come...and answers to any unanswered questions. Leave them in the comments!

I'm off for a nap, methinks...cannons are good for those, too.


anachronist said...

Amazing - you trully love your cannon! It has a name like a pet!

So where did you get it? How much it cost you? Have anybody tried to steal it? Have you ever threatened your neighbours/ husband/ in-laws with it?
"I've got a cannon and I won't hesitate to use it!"

Lovely blue dress in the last photo btw!!!

Albert Berg said...

This is so cool. I need to get one of these. I can add it to my list of manly achievments.
1. Knows How to Throw an Ax
2. Owns a Cannon
3. TBD

Thanks for sharing this!

Connie said...

I know what my boys want for Christmas next year. A Cannon.

jennaseverythingblog said...

Hi Milton! *waving*
Fascinating stuff. And I love the picture of you handling that cannon. Heck yeah!

dolleygurl said...

Very cool post! We once went to a battle at Old Sturbridge Village and can attest that those cannons are certainly loud even if you are a good distance away. I can't imagine standing right next to it.

Haley said...

By looking through your blog I see you really love cannons! There are never women helping with cannons at Civil War reenactments. Hey, is that you taking a nap by the cannon?